The PAX Prime show took place in Seattle two weeks ago, and it was a major event for the game industry — both for fans and for game companies. The show was a tremendous success for all, but there’s some lessons to draw from the show for game marketers that may not be so obvious.
But first, a recap of the show itself. PAX Prime is held at the Washington Convention Center in Seattle, and draws about 70,000 people. The show is at maximum capacity for the facility, and as a consequence this year the show sold out in little more than an hour after the registration was opened up.
The PAX show is not just about console games, or even electronic games — PAX deals with all kinds of games, from tabletop roleplaying to miniatures to board games, card games, vintage videogames, mobile games and more. The show illustrates how gamer culture is platform independent. Gamers like to play games, and exactly what medium the game is expressed in is less important than the game itself.
The game companies exhibiting at PAX brought all the fancy displays, and were busy showing off key titles for the fall. The exhibit hall was far from the only attraction, as a League of Legends event was being held in one of the halls, cosplayers roamed the multi-level convention center, and countless rooms held all kinds of gaming, sessions and even concerts, spread out into neighboring hotels. Swarms of gamers clogged the sidewalks for blocks in all directions, and the costumes displayed on eager fans ranged across all genres and media.
As an example of the sort of lengths companies went to, S2 Games put on an interesting display for its upcoming MOBA Strife. One of the characters from the game was built onto a mechanical bull, where eager attendees could line up to try and ride the creature. Over the top Perhaps, but like many of the events it attracted a long line.
It wasn’t just elaborate booth displays attracting people, though. There were plenty of events and game playing, and eager gamers swarmed the card games, board games and roleplaying games on display and being demoed. As an example of the cross-platform appeal of PAX, contestants selected from among the attendees competed in a multi-game challenge spread across the entire show, playing games of all types in an effort to see who was the best all-around gamer.
The attraction of PAX Prime for game marketers should be obvious: This show attracts dedicated gaming fans, the sort who tend to influence and inform dozens of other gamers. When a show sells out 70,000 tickets in an hour, those aren’t casual buyers picking up the tickets. Those are dedicated fans who waited eagerly in front of the keyboard for registration to open.
An interesting side note here: PAX Prime, unlike many other conventions, does not issue badges with names on them. Your badge is not unique, and in fact you are free to sell it to someone else (whether or not PAX officially approves of this, they have no way of knowing). Scalpers could be found outside the convention center every day of the show, offering to buy badges from attendees or sell them to eager fans looking for a way in to the show. The result of this process, official or not, is that only the most dedicated fans end up attending the show.
This, then is the secret of PAX: the show attracts a goodly number of the most dedicated gamers, and these gamers are the key to the success of game companies. The game industry used to really target a handful of retail buyers for large chains, and the gamers really didn’t matter that much. The gamers could only buy what was being offered on the shelves. Companies spent most of their sales efforts influencing retail buyers, and marketing had to split its attention between generating consumer demand and doing things to impress retailers.
Now, though, retailers are increasingly less and less important as targets for marketing. Word spreads quickly about games on social media, and great games get great traction. Companies that are responsive to fans over time generate loyalty, especially if games are good and continue to improve. Profits are no longer found just on the week of the game’s launch at retail, but increasingly are spread over months and years of the game’s lifetime (as DLC becomes more and more important).
The most successful game companies are ones that can develop and maintain a great audience for their games. Sure, you have to have good games, but you also have to have a continuous effort to create and maintain a community around those games. That sort of effort means, in part, creating a strong presence at shows like PAX Prime, where the key game influencers can be found.
PAX will continue to expand by adding new shows in different regions, which will mean reaching more key gamers. Game marketers need to factor this into marketing plans, and find other shows where such core gamers lurk. This is where you can learn a great deal from the fans about what they like and don’t like about your game, and see firsthand how they respond to new titles. You can also follow the buzz around other games, and get a sense of what will be hot in the near future.
Yes, PAX Prime is crowded and difficult to navigate and exhausting to exhibit at. But the secret of PAX Prime is that it’s a great venue for game companies to market their products, and to build and strengthen the relationship with gamers.